Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Al-Araqib: Spirit in the Desert

We sit under a simple blue tarp slung across a makeshift frame and gaze out across the hot Negev desert to the nearby cemetery of Al-Araqib. The cemetery and the tarp are all that remain of this once vibrant Bedouin village. Or more precisely, they are the only structures that remain, as the heart of the village beats on within the families who continue to cling to their ancestral land despite the destruction of their stone homes, their olive orchards, and their fields of winter wheat.

It has been almost two years since that day in Al-Araqib, one of the Bedouin communities I visited with the Peace and Justice Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the summer of 2012. At that time, the Israeli police had destroyed the village over 40 times. Today the count stands at over 70.

The Negev has been tended and loved for centuries by the Palestinian Bedouin people who know its ways, and even hold deeds to its lands. But Israel perpetuates the false myth of Bedouin people as homeless wanderers. Israeli officials hope that eucalyptus trees will hide the destruction wreaked as 40 000 Bedouin are displaced from the Negev into towns set up just for them (“for their own good”). An eerie echo of Bantustans (South Africa) and Reservations (North America) lingers in the air. Apartheid, anyone?

Things have worsened since our visit. Up until a few weeks ago, the cemetery in Al-Araqib was left untouched, so the families could flee to its protective confines when the bulldozers and guns arrived. The dead protected the living. But not anymore. Israel has just ordered the destruction of ALL structures in Al-Araqib. Now the dead are desecrated along with the living.

A network of support has grown around Al-Araqib over the years, with volunteers from Rabbis for Human Rights and other human rights groups (Christian, Muslim, Jewish and secular) engaging with the villagers in replanting wheat and olives, rebuilding the tarp, resisting the bulldozers, and allowing themselves to be arrested for acts of non-violent resistance. But despite court cases and resistance, the demolitions continue mercilessly, horrifyingly. I cannot imagine my home being demolished even once, or my loved ones pushed, hit and threatened. Where do they find strength?

As I listen to Sheik Sayah Al-Turi of Al-Araqib that summer afternoon two years ago, the sun begins its descent toward a distant hill. The Sheik’s adult son gets up, quietly picks up a container of water and heads out beside the tarp. He does not drink despite the wretched heat – it is Ramadan – but instead washes hands and face. Then, he spreads a mat and begins to pray in the direction of Mecca.

I watch the son as I listen to the father. The young man’s eyes focus on his land as his spirit focuses on his God. I cannot help but be drawn into prayer myself. One of my companions, another Catholic school chaplain, quietly cries. There is pain here, but there is also deep communion, and with it a profound sense of the Holy Spirit.

If the Holy Spirit is understood as the divine presence that sustains all life, then it is under attack in the Holy Land. The Holy Spirit suffers in the Negev, the West Bank, and especially today, Gaza. The slaughter of the people of Gaza, imprisoned behind walls built by Israel, is simply incomprehensible in its inhumanity. But Gaza today is only the most public and violent testimony to the ongoing suffering of the Spirit in the Holy Land.

Throughout Palestine, an onslaught of illegal settlements, foreign trees and military vehicles disrupt the harmony of the land and its peoples. Greed and fear drive destruction and desolation, as Palestinians are harassed, detained, abused, and killed. Al-Araqib is one suffering community among many.

If the Spirit is behind and within every creative act, and connected to the very essence of life, then actions that undermine life become attacks on the Spirit itself. For Christians, this has deep connections to Christ. As we destroy people, land, water and air out of greed – and yes, we are complicit when we do nothing to stop violence – we continue the crucifixion of God (and our brothers and sisters) with an assault on the Spirit. We are slowly suffocating the ruach or breath of God in our world.

We must speak louder, much louder, for justice and peace. The Spirit calls us to give voice. The horror – in Gaza, in the Negev, in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, in Al-Araqib, as in so many other corners of the world – begs our attention. We are all interconnected, all living with each other. No one is irrelevant, not even a small desert community holding tenuously to life in a distant land.

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